The BBC and Series Stacking – An Alternative View

I first noticed on Mashable today the story about the BBC allowing series stacking of their shows. Series Stacking is basically allowing people to watch, on-demand, a whole series of shows rather than just something in the last seven days. The article sort of lambasts the BBC for only just seeing the light and now hoping that other brodcasters will follow. That’s a bit unfair to the BBC as ‘series stacking’ has been in the proposals from the beginning and it’s only just been launched.

I have some history with this one. When I worked at another place, I worked with commercial radio’s trade body, the RadioCentre, to help them respond to Ofcom’s Market Impact Assessment on the iPlayer (and maybe even wrote a response on behalf of my old company – I can’t find it online though).

iPlayer is undoubtedly a huge success and has transformed people’s consumption of media. I know it’s changed mine. The BBC has been able to apply its limitless resources (well, limitless when compared to mortal commercial organisations) to ensure this success. Hey, and lets even skip over the fact that they said the bandwidth usage would be minimal as we’d all be using the p2p player…ahem…

Anyway… for me the key argument for limiting some of the elements of iPlayer was that it places a value, for consumers, on video and audio content of zero. If I can get any BBC show, radio or tv, from whenever, it means that there are more and more opportunities for me to not sit through shows with adverts or pay to download any audio/visual content from other broadcasters.

This is problematic for commercial broadcasters, who only exist because of those annoying commercial messages. Or for high-quality producers like HBO who fund their programmes through subscription.

There’s two responses to this argument and it’s usually “i’ve paid for this content, I should be able to see it/hear it whenever I want” and “commercial broadcasters should just make better programmes”. Whilst I agree with the first, the second is a difficult one.

Broadcasting is in flux, especially TV. We are transitioning into an on-demand/live event environment. In the ‘future’, whenever that is, it’s likely that most pre-recorded programmes will be consumed on-demand – why after all should we have to watch Doctor Who at 7pm Saturday (with some BBC Three repeat options)? Just make it available from 7pm on Saturday, a time that I may choose to watch. Live events, whether that’s the FA Cup or the Big Brother final will be consumed, naturally, in a more live manner.

As we transition further and ratings start to get higher for on-demand and lower for broadcast, the economics for commercial TV changes. Channels will start to pre-fund series partly on expected broadcast ad revenue and partly on predicted on-demand fees and advertising. Indeed we’re partly starting to see that with shows that are re-commissioned based on their DVD sales.

This then becomes difficult if the BBC’s pegged the price that consumers are willing to pay at zero.

Commercial TV simply won’t be able to fund as many programmes as it does at the moment, it definitely won’t be able to take chances on new ideas and specialist, long tail shows, won’t be commissioned. It’s always easy to dismiss commercial TV as ‘crap’, especially if you’re an AB 25-44 University-educated person, you don’t however represent all viewers.

I think it’s also bad for the BBC. Competition is good in most markets and it does keep people on their toes to try and make better things. The collapse of commercial television will not help ensure the BBC continue to make interesting, different and high quality shows.

At the moment a limited number of live BBC channels compete with a much larger selection of commercial channels. This is sort of the circa 1990s multi-channel trade off, commercial TV has ads – but there’s hundreds of channels of content to choose from to compete against the well-funded ad-free smaller selection of BBC ones.

iPlayer’s eventual evolution will remove all the BBC’s capacity constraints, a BBC Redux, if you will. We’ll start to see not only the regular BBC channels (One to Four, Kids, News and Parliament) but a myriad of different ‘virtual’ channels. BBC Gardening – playlisting shows that fill the niche or BBC Ross – playlisting programmes that include people that can’t pronounce their Rs. At the same time the iPlayer will provide a searchable, playable, ad-free achive of every recent show. All surrounded with suggestions of what BBC content to watch next. Commercial TV doesn’t stand a chance.

Now, for a licence-fee payer everything i’m saying is heretical. I want all 13 episodes of Doctor Who and I want them now! Now, i’m not arguing that it’s a great service – it is! It just has a knock on effect that will, in the longer term, leave us all poorer.

5 thoughts on “The BBC and Series Stacking – An Alternative View”

  1. Your basic premise seems to be that if people get used to paying zero for on-demand BBC content, they’ll never want to pay for, or watch ads on, any non-BBC content. The ‘pegging’ argument. But whilst this COULD turn out to be true, you haven’t provided any evidence either way. Maybe people will be happy to pay nothing for some stuff, and a subscription for other stuff. After all, the price of CDs and DVDs can vary quite a lot, and tv content may turn out to be more diverse than CD/DVD content, and so can cope with a bigger array of pricing points/business models.

    You also say that ‘iPlayer’s eventual evolution will remove all the BBC’s capacity constraints’, but currently the BBC can ONLY put stuff on iPlayer that has been broadcast, so there is a capacity contraint, and it’d take a ton of bureaucracy and reviews and BBC Trust approval to change this. Of course, ‘eventually’ this might change, but it might equally not (and it’s not looking very likely right now).

  2. The capacity constraint is what they can broadcast, but they can broadcast a huge amount of things on their seven linear channels – it’s over 700 hundred hours of content a week – that’s qute a bit. And, if it’s all stacked, that’s tens of thousands of hours of content.

    The key thing the BBCs going to do with the stuff is continually repackage whatever they have rights to in more and more ways. In theory, something like ‘Dave’ could easily be replicated by the BBC as ‘BBC Banter’ through a clever use of series stacking and broadcasting shows overnight etc.

    Nevermind new content, existing content is enough to fill hundreds of virtual channels (which could be as little as four hours of programming looped).

  3. We’re at a point now where we’re putting restraints on what we’re able to access, not based on technical issues, but based on whats “allowed”.

    While the iPlayer has been a runaway success, in this instance the BBC is playing catch up here with commercial operators. All the US networks have come around to the idea that it’s a smart thing to let their viewers stream previous episodes of that season’s programme – sometimes runnning to many more than the 13 self-imposed BBC episode limit. The revenues from the digital “cents” don’t make up for the broadcast “dollars” but in time that differential may come down.

    Even ITV has had dozens of full series of classic programmes available to watch again for a long time while the soaps have thirty day catch-up periods – longer than the BBC offers for Eastenders.

    I can see catch-up windows working quite happily alongside DVD sales, secondary channel licencing and sales/rentals via Kangeroo (if it’s ever allowed to get off the ground) or iTunes.

    If the technology is available, and we’ve paid for it, you have to provide good reasons why we *shouldn’t* be able to get that programming on our own terms to our own timetables. For the most part, that limit is due to licencing: whether it’s because the programme was produced by an indie, and therefore not actually owned by the BBC, or because it’s licenced copyrighted material such as music.

    Can commercial TV compete? Absolutely. 12 of the top 20 programmes on television last week were ITV productions. And ITV also has the most popular show on TV so far this year in Britain’s Got Talent.

    Does commercial TV in the UK need to improve its video offerings? Absolutely. US networks and the BBC put ITV, Channel 4, Five and Sky’s current set-ups to shame. But I think most of them know that and are working hard to improve their services.

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